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April 17, 2023

UVA Launches Ambitious Effort to Reduce Health Disparities

Little girl uses a stethoscope

The School of Medicine has launched a new Center for Health Equity and Precision Public Health to improve the health and well-being of rural residents, the economically challenged and minority groups across Virginia and beyond. 

The center will bring to bear expertise from across UVA to tackle many of today’s greatest public health issues. The goal: reduce health disparities and promote health equity to help people live longer, healthier lives. 

“The pandemic has really taught us that, one, our public health infrastructure is not nearly as strong as it should be. And, two, we can't think of healthcare and public health in this one-size-fits-all type of mentality,” said Keith L. Keene, PhD, the center’s founding director. 

Keene has been recruited from East Carolina University, where he was the director of its Center for Health Disparities, for his far-reaching expertise in the subject. At UVA, he is taking a big-picture approach to complicated problems that he hopes will yield practical benefits for both society at large and individual patients.

In his new role, Keene is not only part of UVA’s Department of Public Health Sciences, but, as a researcher investigating the genetic risk factors for complex disease, he works closely with UVA’s Center for Public Health Genomics. Genomics is the study of an organism’s complete set of genetic material and the factors that affect gene function. One of Keene’s objectives is to connect that type of important but complex research directly with patient outcomes.

“Our goal here is to build a new center – an interdisciplinary center – that's really devoted to integrating precision medicine,” he said. “So we’ll use the genomics work that we do here in the Center for Public Health Genomics along with public health and health informatics approaches to think about how we can improve the health and well-being of rural, economically challenged and racial/ethnic minority populations.”

At first blush, it may seem contradictory to take such a macro approach when targeting individual outcomes. But capitalizing on vast amounts of data is one of the great opportunities of modern medical research. “We want to really factor in things such as the social determinants of health – how the conditions in which someone lives influences biology, or human diseases in our case,” Keene explained. “We can then see how the biology and environment interplay to create the overall health profile of individuals. Then we can take it a step further and think about how we can bring in data such as anonymized electronic health records to really give us a full picture of why certain individuals are more likely to have a particular disease or respond to a particular treatment.”

The result, he hopes, will be a new way of thinking about the holistic picture of human health. This, he says, will help us reduce health disparities, ensure health equity and move toward a society where every person can “attain his or her full health potential,” regardless of race, location or economic background. 

“Being able to incorporate all of those types of data can really help us think about the overall picture of health and healthcare,” Keene said. “We see how desperately it is needed – across the state there is just an increasing lack of specialists and an increasing lack of access. We want to do something about that, and to ensure people have good options.”

Those goals align closely with UVA Health’s first-ever 10-year strategic plan, which aims to cultivate healthy communities, enable discoveries that benefit human health and ensure no Virginian needs to leave the state to receive even the most complex care.

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